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Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2003
A few steps back to take one step forward in life
"Why can't a woman be like a man?" Rex Harrison famously lamented in "My Fair Lady." In the same way, foreigners who watch enough Japanese films and TV "home dramas (homu dorama)" about families in crisis, often end up asking, with varying degrees of frustration, "Why can't they be more like us?" Or, more to the point, why can't they be less like each other? Why are the fathers so invariably stubborn stick-in-the-muds? Why are the adult daughters so everlastingly pure, even in stories set in these degenerate times? Why are the mothers so often smoothers of troubled waters, with barely a life of their own? And why does the whole enterprise of family life feel so fraught? Don't these people ever just lay back, switch on "The Simpsons" and have a laugh?
Itsumichi Isomura's "Fune o Oritara Kanojo no Shima (Getting Off the Boat at Her Island)" -- a family drama set on an island in the Inland Sea -- embodies most of the above cliches, as well as shamelessly promoting Ehime Prefecture, whose film commission is listed as a production partner.
Despite suggestions here and there of the region's problems, including depopulation, despoilment of natural resources and the bridge-building mania that has sunk local governments hopelessly into debt, the overall view is upbeat.
The Inland Sea, the film shows us with nearly every frame, is still God's Country -- though the fishing could be better.
Isomura, however, is not a PR hack, but the director of "Ganbatte Ikimasshoi," a 1998 teen drama also set in Ehime that garnered dozens of awards for its lyrical, insightful portrayal of adolescence.
Instead of fleeing from the standard tropes of home drama -- or comically standing them on their heads -- Isomura embraces them, while tamping down the melodrama. These are not the usual strategies of his younger directing peers, who prefer to explore the social fringes or manga fantasylands, or of his older ones who, mindful of their audience, dutifully wring out every tear.
Granted, some scenes in "Fune o Oritara" would not be out of place in an NHK morning drama, in which everyone is bubbling with the warmth proper to yasashii nihonjin ("gentle Japanese"). There are more scenes, however, that get at the truths behind the cliches, that amplify the low hum of inner lives. This is in the best humanist tradition of Japanese films, and Isomura is one of its ablest current practitioners.
His heroine, Kuriko (Yoshino Kimura), is a 25-year-old woman who left her native island after graduating from high school and never looked back.
Working at a publishing company in Tokyo, she is living her dream of independent life in the big city, but is still an island girl at heart.
When she falls in love with a shaggy-haired photographer and decides to marry him, she returns home for the first time in two years to tell her father (Ren Osugi). (Mom, played with tireless good cheer by Naoko Otani, is not really in the equation.)
A retired elementary school principal, Dad is busy transforming his old school into a bed-and-breakfast when Kuriko pays the surprise visit.
He barely recognizes her and she cannot bring herself to break the big news. It's not that he is so intimidating. Though sparing with his words -- that de rigeur trait for a Japanese movie father -- he's too mild-mannered to pose a threat to her plans. In fact, he finds himself at a loss with Kuriko, who still wants to lean on him, but is now a grown woman with a mind of her own.
She, on the other hand, needs to get in touch with the girl she once was before she leaves her behind forever. Her marriage announcement can wait. Instead she visits people from her past, including a favorite aunt and uncle, who fawn over her and bicker with each other, and Kenta (Shoei), a former classmate who is now a big, brawny, simple-hearted fisherman -- and still can't get over Kuriko, his playmate when they were kids.
She indulges in happy memories of old times and, one day, rooting around in a storehouse, finds a small bell she bought on a school excursion -- a memento of her first love. Named Takashi, he was a tall, bright mainlander sent to the island on an exchange program. When he left, he and Kuriko each took a bell as a pledge of their affection. Where is he now, she wonders? Together with Kenta, who is still pining for her after all these years, Kuriko goes looking for him.
Isomura films this story of longing and parting with the broad comic strokes and postcard-pretty local color that TV drama fans will find familiar. His heroine, however, is not the latest in a long line of movie postadolescents lingering at the doorway to adulthood, afraid to step in. Instead, she is a romantic of the old type, who wants to keep the good things from her childhood near her forever. Isomura films her memories as core samples of her inner being, primal but ever-present. The little girl, lost on an unfamiliar island and crying for her grandmother, is still Kuriko today.
As Kuriko, Kimura is less appealingly astringent than the rebellious teen heroine Rena Tanaka played in "Ganbatte Ikimasshoi." Instead she girlishly pouts and tomboyishly shouts, while hinting that Kuriko is not quite the artless country girl she seems. She is something of a stereotype, this Kuriko, but I liked her more than most Japanese movie ingenues, for whom purity is a fashion accessory, to be worn as needed. For her, it's the real article, something that decades in Tokyo probably won't knock out of her. She'll always be the girl from Ehime -- and who would want it any other way?